Twaweza, one of the world’s cutting edge accountability NGOs

October 8, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Rakesh Rajani is an extraordinary man, a brilliant, passionate Asian Tanzanian with bottle-stopper glasses and a silver tongue. The persuasive rakesh rajanieloquence may stem from his teenage years as an evangelical preacher, but these days he weaves his spells to promote transparency, active citizenship and the work of Twaweza, the organization he founded in 2009.

Rakesh is a classic example of a hybrid social movement leader, bridging the divide between policy makers and poor people, equally at ease in the homes and meetings of poor villagers and the corridors of the White House or the Googleplex (both of whom he has advised).

Last week I spent two days at a review of Twaweza’s work; an intense, exhausting, intellectually tumultuous couple of days with the smartest group of people I’ve met in a long time. Not sure how many posts it will take to do justice to it, but here goes.

First, some background on Twaweza. Its name means ‘we can make it happen’ in Swahili. It is a ‘ten year citizen-centered initiative, focusing on large-scale change in East Africa.’ Its strategy was so brilliant and ahead of its time that I nearly blogged on it just as a piece of thinking. Here’s my feeble attempt to summarize it:

The problem: a combination of poor quality services in East Africa . Twaweza’s groundbreaking Uwezo assessment shows that only 3 out of 10 children can do basic literacy and numeracy across East Africa; and worse, only 6% of secondary students got a pass equivalent in the 4th year exams last year, despite families making huge sacrifices to keep their kids in school. Plus deep public disillusionment – across the region, those on the sharp end feel there’s no point in complaining because no-one in authority will listen.

Twaweza ToCTwaweza’s original Theory of Change (I’ll get onto their self-critique later): A pretty crude and linear model of access to information → citizen action → state response → improved outcomes.

But the truly innovative bit was how Twaweza conceptualized changing this state of affairs. It identified five vibrant networks that loom large in the lives of most poor East Africans. These were:

Religion: a key organizing principle in people’s lives

Mass media: privatized, liberalized and booming – there are hundreds of radio stations. TV is important as a public event (people go to public spaces with TVs to watch the news, premiership soccer etc). Newspapers are crucial to elites, and provide content for TV and radio.

Mobile phones: enough said

Teachers: the expansion of basic education means teachers are ever-more ubiquitous. They are often not that great as teachers, but have a big role in the ‘liminal space’ (Rakesh) between communities and the wider world. Villagers go to their teachers with ‘How do I fill in this form/ use this new phone?.

Fast moving consumer goods: every community has a kiosk with basic goods – a big deal compared to a past of rationing, queues and shortages. They are also social convening point (especially important for women): where you exchange information on the day to day struggles for survival, networks.

Twaweza saw this combination of channels as the heart of a potential ecosystem of change. Get enough information to people, simultaneously, via as many of these channels as possible, both on the problems of service provision, and the case for citizen action, and bingo. Rather than create little projects of its own, the ambition was to ‘ride the wave’, seeking partners already working in these channels who could reach 2 million or more people. The website has some nice examples – providing social content for top TV soap operas or radio satire, or advertising on the back page of 40 million school notebooks, challenging  – large scale innovation.

This level of ambition is matched by a deep commitment to measuring results, experimentation and public transparency. No wonder Twaweza has become something of a donor darling with an $8m a year budget.

That was then (2009), this is now. How’s it all going? Last week’s seminar was a combination of preliminary findings from some large scale evaluations,twaweza-logo and a wider discussion on how Twaweza’s theory of change is withstanding the passage of time.

The initial evaluation findings are not good. None of the large scale evaluations led by eminent academics from around the world has yet uncovered evidence that Twaweza’s information is registering with citizens on any scale, still less triggering increased citizen action. One of the evaluators (echoed by Rakesh) called it a ‘bucket of cold water’ on the original concept. Finding partners able to match Twaweza’s ambitions has proved difficult – they have some 18 who are doing the business, most of them media-related. But another 40 or so are problematic, draining staff time and energy that could be spent on more exciting stuff.

By contrast, when it comes to public policy, there are some notable achievements – Twaweza’s Uwezo education campaign has played a major part in shifting attention in Kenya and Tanzania from enrolment to outcomes (something also picked up in the post-2015 high level panel report), not least by publishing the results of its annual tests on some 300,000 (!) kids. Twaweza has a high media profile as a credible source of research and analysis.

Given such findings, it would be all too easy to wheel out the classic NGO responses to null results – it needs more time, you’ve measured the wrong thing (shoot the messenger), we achieved lots of stuff that wasn’t in the original plan, events got in the way etc etc. And actually, some of these responses in this case would be quite justifiable. But Twaweza seems to positively relish donning the hair shirt and beating itself up. To find out the results of two days of self flagellation, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.

And here’s a nice 1 minute Twaweza video giving a flavour of the behavioural changes it seeks to trigger.